How can I garden while maintaining the health of my yard?
May 1, 2014 2:27 AM   Subscribe

I have a yard of my own for the first time in my life, and I'm really enjoying getting into gardening. We've been here about two and a half years, and it's still very exciting for me to have so much dirt of my own to play with. I started my tomato and cantaloupe seeds under a grow light a few weeks ago, and am looking forward to planting them outside soon. However, I'm afraid to till or dig up the soil in any way, because I don't want to do anything that could contribute to erosion, or otherwise damage the health of my soil. Are my fears valid? If so, do you know of any gardening methods that will prevent erosion and help maintain a healthy yard?

For example, one thing we'd like to do is plant vines all along the ugly chainlink fences in the back yard (I've already spoken to my neighbors about this), but the ground is already sort of sunken around the border, and I'm afraid that digging into it will just make the problem worse.

We did garden last summer. The previous autumn we piled fallen leaves up in one pile, covered it with a tarp, and let it sit all winter. When spring came we mixed it up, then bought a bunch of bags of dirt to cover it. We then planted in that dirt. I figured that was a good way to build the soil up, instead of tilling it up and breaking it down.

There are two problems with that method. The first is that it costs more money than we have right now. Those bags of dirt are pretty heavy, but there's not much dirt in them. 1 cubic foot just doesn't go that far. We could get it delivered in bulk, but we have a pretty big yard (about half an acre), and to get all the dirt for all our little projects would cost several hundred dollars, which is not something we can spare right now.

My second problem with that method is that it isn't sustainable on a larger scale. I'm preventing damage to my own yard, but what about the place I'm getting the dirt from? If the only way to prevent erosion is to take dirt form somewhere else, then the continents would have been swept away into the ocean millions of years ago, right? There has to be a better way, or at least a different way.

I'm fully aware that my ideas of erosion or land management might be naïve or simply wrong. Please feel free to point that out, if that is the case. I live in Central Ohio, which is pretty flat, and pretty fertile. I don't know if erosion is a real problem in this area, I just feel very protective over this little piece of earth that we've been given stewardship over.

Any advice you all can give me on this situation would be most appreciated.
posted by sam_harms to Home & Garden (14 answers total)
However, I'm afraid to till or dig up the soil in any way, because I don't want to do anything that could contribute to erosion, or otherwise damage the health of my soil.

Neither tilling nor digging your garden will contribute to erosion or soil damage. The sinking around your fence is not erosion, it's sinkage (or whatever the proper term is). If you want healthy soil and you don't want to buy it in, don't bury leaves: compost them, along with everything else you can get your hands on that is compostable, or properly process the leaves to compost themselves. You will literally be making your own organic soil.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:43 AM on May 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

Mulching is a great way to hold moisture in the soil for your plants, add organic matter to it, and hold it in place (whether from water or wind).

What is available in your area may vary - I use pea straw for most of the vegetable garden, and pine chips for the things that like them (blueberries, for example), but I see other people using hay/straw, or sugarcane mulch.

Also, composting or worm farms are also great for creating healthy soil.
posted by AnnaRat at 3:04 AM on May 1, 2014

Nobody is worried about erosion in your backyard. Ohio has local cooperative extension offices, with resources on soil management. They can talk to you about good stewardship and backyard gardening. As DarlingBri points out, it's possible to make soil, it's not all a zero sum game.
posted by vitabellosi at 3:09 AM on May 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

FYI, I got the idea that digging into your yard will result in erosion from the book Food Not Lawns.
posted by sam_harms at 3:57 AM on May 1, 2014

Constant tilling of rows for weed control in growing row crops can damage the soil. Tilling as part of bed preparation is not problematic. Digging beds is basically never problematic assuming youve chosen a proper site.

Composting is a great idea but your leaf and tarp method is not correct you should check with your local groups to learn how to build a compost heap. You can probably also buy compost. You'll want to mix that in with you local top soil.

Also try to figure out why the area near your fence is sunken - otherwise it would suck to go through the effort of digging beds only to have them sink.
posted by JPD at 5:17 AM on May 1, 2014

Also I'm not sure why you buying topsoil unless you have lots of clay or sand which it doesn't sound like you do.
posted by JPD at 5:19 AM on May 1, 2014

I think it's fine it dig in your yard. There are arguments for no till, but I've never heard erosion listed among them, and even then there's a big difference between you with a shovel or walk behind tiller and an industrial 'ripper'. Dirt is not a finite resource like water... It's easy to make more and indeed more is always being made, both in nature (think of a forest floor) and industrially. A finished/mature compost heap is a big pile of really nice soil. You can totally make your own. Being from CA, I associate erosion with things like broad scale deforestation, wildfires, flooding... Not farming and definitely not smaller scale backyard projects - even if you planted out your whole half acre. Plus, Ohio is flat in a way that CA is not!

Try a copy of The New Organic Grower and/or Gaia's Garden; and hit up the university extension, state organic association, or master gardener classes! Some locales even gave a master composter cert too. You have to provide volunteer hours to get the master certification, so there are often lots of avid hobby gardeners just waiting to be helpful. If you need links or anything else, me mail me - this is tricky on my phone ;)

I've worked on a number of small farms and am not that taken with Food Not Lawns, which I also own a copy of.

The greenhorns have a very cute website with lots and lots of resources and links, as does farm Have fun!

On review: I agree about sinkage, and I think that it IS the technical term lol.
posted by jrobin276 at 5:21 AM on May 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

You should get your soil tested by your local Cooperative Extension office so that you know what nutrients to add. They will also have information on planting fruit trees, on composting, on preventing pests. They are much more attuned these days to organic gardening.
posted by mareli at 5:23 AM on May 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

As far as keeping costs down goes, you may want to look into raised beds and lasagna gardening. If you build a few small beds yourself, I think the cost should be reasonable.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 5:42 AM on May 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Conservation practices and the science behind them that were developed for large-scale commercial farming on acres of land entirely covered in annual crops aren't necessarily directly applicable to small, isolated vegetable gardens dotting a suburban landscape of that is mostly lawns, trees, shrubs, houses, and paved areas.

Erosion is primarily a problem on sloping ground that has inadequate vegetation cover (it can also be an issue in flat, wide open areas with little vegetation and high winds, but if you're not seeing dust storms in your locale, that's totally not something you need to worry about). So for erosion control, the only thing to concern yourself with would be to not put your vegetable beds on slopes, and if you do have some slopes in your yard (significant enough to affect water drainage patterns) pay attention to what is growing there--it should be either grass or some kind of complete-coverage ground cover with a good root system like vinca. Erosion can be a minor problem in suburban yards if you, for example, put in ornamental beds on sloping terrain where there's a lot of bare soil left around the flower plantings. Not typically a problem for vegetable beds because most people chose a flat spot for them to begin with.

As far as soil health/fertility, the best thing you can do in both vegetable beds and on your grass is to return as much organic matter to the soil as possible. Compost your grass clippings, leaves, kitchen scraps, etc., and when that material is well composted, you can add it thickly to your vegetable and flower beds and even scatter it thinly on your lawn areas ("top dressing"). If your town offers a city composting program, you're much better off purchasing a bulk load of compost each spring and working that in wherever you can, than bringing in bagged topsoil, which is probably no better than the soil that is already in your yard.

Till vs. no-till methods, to my understanding have more do to with preserving the soil structure and minimally disturbing the ecological web of things like worms, insects, bacteria and fungi that help produce the nutrients that plants need. However, digging up your soil won't permanently ruin it--all the good living stuff that makes up the soil ecosystem will recolonize it quickly if there's organic matter for them to feast on. So digging up your native soil is probably the easiest way to get your veggie beds going initially, and I would argue more environmentally friendly than bringing in a bunch of bagged topsoil (which is even more disturbed than your native soil). Bulk topsoil is cheaper but even worse quality than bagged soil, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who's not dealing with extremely poor quality native soil (extreme end of sandy or clay, for example).

So, to summarize: go ahead and dig up your native soil for garden beds where you want, and amend with some proper compost if you can. Your best investment would be a yard of bulk finished compost. Read up on proper composting techniques, and continue to amend your vegetable beds and lawn with compost each year. Minimize the amount of tillage in your vegetable beds in the future. Also, mulch around your vegetable plants and ornamentals during the growing season and completely mulch over your vegetable beds in the winter.
posted by drlith at 5:57 AM on May 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have an electric tiller and do a light tilling in the fall mostly to break up the soil and mix in organic matter. If you can start a compost I'd do that. For my garden (26' x 26') here's what I do over the year. I'm in zone 4.

After the first frost I pull most of the plants. Heavy plants like tomatoes don't get tilled in as they are too tough to till. They get composted or tossed. The soil gets tilled and my rows reset. Some things like some lettuces and parsley get left as they will start strong in the spring. I plant garlic everywhere. Basically garlic forms a fence around all of my rows. Oak, maple etc - everything but walnut, gets raked and put through my cheap mulcher and spread over the rows. This will break down over the winter and provide protection for the garlic over the winter and weed control in the spring.

Come spring I have almost nothing to prep in the garden other than planting because it was all done in the fall. I prefer this method as the fall is much drier than spring and I can plant garlic.

I also start tomatoes and peppers indoors and plant around the end of May. Lettuce and carrots and a few other things get started outside in April. I start cukes, squash, beans in cups in April so I can keep an eye on them and then plant them out mid-may.

I mulch my grass right into the lawn. I wouldn't put into the garden without composting due to weeds. Gardenweb forums can be a great resource. Experiment and give yourself permission to fail. I try new things everything year.
posted by misterpatrick at 9:13 AM on May 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

For a great book on gardening on the cheap and taking care of the soil long term, I recommend Steve Soloman Book

Gardening when it counts

He pays close attention to soil and cheap ways to improve it every year while still getting good garden productivity.
He talks about the choice of hybirds vs heirlooms
He talks about others approach to the same problems and why he chooses his solution and why or why not they may work for you.
He references a TON of great work done by the SCS (soil conservation service) now the NRCS (natural resource conservation service) and known locally as extension offices, mostly from the 1930's effort to fix the dustbowl.

It is a great book (although he comes off a little condescending).

And the best way to prevent erosion, on any size of dirt, is to plant across the slope, not with it and leave a border or strips of "native" vegetation. For your purpose turf grass is native vegetation in a suburb or homestead (especially in Ohio).
posted by bartonlong at 9:37 AM on May 1, 2014

You don't mention if your land is particularly sloped in such a way that erosion would be a problem. The only way digging up your garden could contribute to erosion would be if you weren't planting anything in it afterwards. If you always have something growing in your garden you'll be fine. Plant winter cover crops at the end of the season will also help prevent any erosion or mulch. Any soil that may moves a will be stopped by other plants in your garden, grass/lawn is good at this.

Things you might want to look into are no dig gardening, raised beds, permaculture and their use of swales to control erosion, though that is probably only relevant if you have a large area of land.

Planting plants in sucken areas where you are worried about erosion will actually use soil movement in your favour to help fill in the sunken areas, as long as water doesn't gather there. The plant will drop organic matter which will help fill in the area, the roots and stems will help retain any soil that blows or washes by, organic matter will attract worms and insects which will add their organic matter to the soil and bam instant soil, it's even faster if you mulch and compost too. Try for perennials for maximum effect.

Making compost with leaves is easy, and you were mostly on the right track.

If you want to build up your garden beds and are willing for it to take time, each season work some compost into the soil, plant your veggies and mulch and compost mulch and compost while you are gardening and the soil will build itself. I wanted raised garden beds, but couldn't afford a huge amount of dirt/Mels mix to go in them, so basically I started with 3 4x4 12 inch deep beds with about 2 inches of dirt in them and the bottoms open so the plants could grown down into the soil that was already there. I have spent the past 2 summers, mulching and composting, throwing in the odd bag of garden dirt if it's on sale, a bag of rabbit poop here or there when I harvest a section I work in more compost before planting new. At the end of the season, I threw in a whole sack of rabbit poop into each one, and then covered them with leaves or old straw I had around. I am now at the beginning of season 3 and my beds are an inch or so from the top.

If you do nothing else get or make a compost bin and read up on how to make it. Don't be put off by all the people that make out making compost is rocket science, though you may have to experiment a little to find out what works for the sort of waste you have.
posted by wwax at 10:47 AM on May 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I guess I misunderstood why the author of Food Not Lawns recommended no-till gardening. She might have mentioned erosion as a problem for particular climates and situations. I do prefer to disturb the local ecosystem as little as possible, but I guess a little digging isn't enough to do any real damage. I'll go ahead and start my projects, buy some finished compost for now, and continue doing research on the topic. Thanks!
posted by sam_harms at 8:05 PM on May 1, 2014

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